How a Mistake Fare Changed My Life

Tips on taking advantage of mistake fares and how I scored a trip to the middle east for $262.

At some point in the future I want to talk about how I put together our epic honeymoon itinerary, but before I dive into that perhaps it's worth backing the train up to set the stage for how that opportunity came to be. And before you say, "you proposed... that's how." there's obviously more to the story than just that, and of course it has to do with travel hacking. So let's jump back to Christmas Day 2014. I was visiting my family in Alabama when my phone vibrated to alert me that I had received an email from one of the fare deal alert sites to which I subscribe. The deal was one of my favorite kinds - a mistake fare. This meant that some poor airline staffer had incorrectly loaded fare costs into inventory which resulted in abnormally low prices for certain routes.

The deal? Etihad Airlines from the US to Abu Dhabi return for less than $200.  

At first I didn't think much of it, but after jokingly asking my parents if I should take trip to the Middle East for less than most domestic return flights in the US my dad posed a blunt question, "Why not?" After hearing that, the proverbial green flag dropped and I was off to the races. At this point, news of the fare was spreading like a wildfire and I knew I had to move fast. However, while availability was widespread, I didn't really want to just go to Abu Dhabi/Dubai, and I knew I couldn't sell that trip alone to my partner.

So like any good traveler I jumped on FlyerTalk and feverishly caught up on the thread dedicated to this fare (it was locked a year later with 2,897 posts all about the same fare mistake). In doing so, I immediately found that others were noticing that the fare was valid, albeit for a slight increase in price, even if a stopover was built in - as long as you transited AUH (Abu Dhabi), you got the deal. 

After looking at where Etihad flies and who its partners are, I found two critical pieces of information that ultimately allowed me to book a fare dreams are made of:

  1. American Airlines is an Etihad Partner
  2. Etihad AND American both fly to Paris 

With that information in mind, I went to work. I chose to search for a route from New York with a 4 day stop in Paris (on AA) followed by a 3 day stop in Abu Dhabi before returning to JFK (again, through Paris). I used the multi-city itinerary search on Orbitz and after about an hour I found the ticket I wanted. The total price? $268.20 per person to fly 13,803 miles. 

Best. Email. Ever. 

Best. Email. Ever. 

One thing that's been missing from this story so far is the part where I asked my partner if she wanted to go. And that is because I hadn't yet. I was racing the clock (and thousands of other savvy travelers) and knew I had one critical tool at my disposal - the 24 hour money back guarantee provided by Orbitz (and other Airlines and Online Travel Agents). If she ultimately gave the thumbs down, I could cancel and get a full refund. 

Another important note was that prior to mid 2015 the DOT actually required that mistake fares be honored if they depart from US soil. With that in mind I was pretty confident that the ticket would issue and the trip would actually take place. Note that this is NOT the case anymore, and I wouldn't be surprised if this fare was the cause of that change of tone. 

So when the rush of the booking process finally wore off and the dust settled, I suddenly realized that I had just booked a ticket that would not only take my partner to a place she had been wanting to visit ever since she first went in high school, it would also give me the perfect opportunity to turn her into my wife. 

Thus a series of events were set in motion that ultimately led up to a very impromptu moment in front of a little cafe in Saint Germain des Pres where I got on my knee and gave my now wife a very expensive gift. Only after she said, "yes!" of course. 

The moral of this story is simply that we didn't do anything crazy to fly around the world, we just jumped on a great opportunity when it presented itself and made it work in our favor. 

So how can you take advantage a mistake fare?

  1. Sign up for alerts from blogs that report these kinds of fares. I linked to a few earlier. 
  2. Be flexible - they may not fit in to your optimal schedule!
  3. Don't hesitate! Use the 24 hour cancellation policy to your advantage. 
  4. Get creative. If something like this does appear, try to stretch the value even more.
  5. DON'T CALL THE AIRLINE. Don't ruin it for everyone else.

A few additional notes on our trip:

  • After our flights changed due to a schedule update by Etihad, I was able to change our return to be directly from Abu Dhabi instead of via Paris.
  • We took advantage of the bid for upgrade process that Etihad and various other carriers use to sell open business class seats close to departure. We were able to get up front for the long flight and it cost us about the same as this trip would have cost us in economy as a whole. Not bad in my opinion, and a great way to wrap up a special holiday.